Billboard’s Top 100 Holiday Songs for the week of December 26, 2015 is an interesting piece to ponder. On the surface, it’s a mere summary of what’s happening around the holidays at a radio station nearest you, a glimpse into the pop culture of a standard American holiday. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” takes number one: a song about romance in the winter and all the cheeriness that comes along with it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the other 99 are not overtly religious either; they are about relationships, family, food, warm fires, happiness, joy, giving, being with family and friends, and—for those in the Northern Hemisphere—coats and scarves to bundle up with when “the weather outside is frightful”. All these things indicate that the Christmas spirit is aglow. But the yuletide good-spiritedness doesn’t just reside in the Philistine culture of the masses; transcending class, racial, and (to some extent) religious distinction, it has seemingly settled into every place, including those more associated with high culture of the academy and the arts.

Let’s be honest though: despite Andy Williams saying otherwise, sometimes Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. If I can be anecdotal for just a moment, several years ago I started a new holiday tradition. In the midst of good, ole fashioned Christmastime family tension, my aunt burst out with the one-liner “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. A now-standard joke between us, we sing it every December at the first sign of anything gloomy or stressful. (When feeling blue, the last thing you want to hear is Andy Williams being extra perky about “the hap-happiest season of all” since deep down, your current experience tells you otherwise. Even so, instead of facing the facts, I typically try to muddle along with Andy in his cheeriness.)

This is what makes the film Surviving Christmas so powerful. It’s about a guy who has grievances from his past that he has to deal with, so he hires the family who lives in his childhood home to relive the Christmas he never had. The family is just as messed up as he is, but they still follow the script to attempt a Norman Rockwell Christmas anyway. It’s only a matter of time before things come unglued, and in the end, healing only starts when they all deal with reality. Only until they acknowledge and deal with the dysfunction can there come any sort of redemption.

All that to say this: it may just be that the the warm holiday spirit that a lot of us like to put ourselves into every year is an albatross, a weight pulling us downward. The culture presses us to make it a happy season, even if our inner selves are crumbling. And the songs only add to the pressure because they give us no liberating message for which to be happy.

Take the notion of “belief” for example; many of the songs speak of belief but have no ultimate, external, ground for it. Josh Groban’s “Believe” written for The Polar Express is about belief, but belief in what? The only thing the lyrics point toward is that we should believe in what “your heart is sayin'” or “what you feel inside”, demonstrating that there is no referent beyond the self. So the joy, faith, and happiness our modern holiday songs describe—all good longings—ultimately are converted into a burden when received as a secularized ideal.

In Christian thought, belief used to mean faith in something external to the self, which had a liberating effect since the self did not have to shore up its own salvation. In the same way, joy at Christmas once had its origin in God’s coming and its resulting societal implications, but now in the postmodern period, where do we turn to receive it if we have no overarching plot line to substantiate the joy? We lack a cohesive narrative of ourselves in the West, and in such a setting, how joyful can we actually be if we are going nowhere? On this point, I can write no better than Robert Jenson who in his “How the World Lost Its Story” offers a telling exposé of our current situation in the West. He writes:

Modernity’s hope was in progress; the model of this hope was biblical hope in God as the Coming One, the Eschatos. Modernity cannot hope in the biblical God, founded as it is in a declaration of independence from him. Therefore, when hope in progress has been discredited, modernity has no resource either for renewing it or for acquiring any other sort of hope. The mere negation of faith in progress is sheer lack of hope; and hopelessness is the very definition of postmodernism.

Much modernist/postmodernist literature and art is directly and thematically either lamentation about, or defiant proclamation of, hopelessness: Promises, our artists tell us in drumbeat monotony, should not be made, because they cannot be kept. Promises, in the postmodern world, are inauthentic simply because they are promises, because they commit a future that is not ours to commit. Where the impossibility of promise appears less thematically and more formally, it runs together with the renunciation of plotted narrative instanced earlier: Promises can be made only if reality is getting someplace, that is, if it has a plotted story.

In short, our holiday songs speak of something we ultimately cannot give ourselves, for they describe things that once had their basis in something outside of us. And now that we find ourselves ultimately going nowhere, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” promises something that it cannot deliver. In such a position, we can receive these messages only as burdensome tasks because we must achieve the ideals ourselves.

But perhaps if we find ourselves amidst a stressful or heartbreaking Christmas season, we can call it what it is and rest in trying not to put a veneer over whatever ordeal we face. As we struggle to create our own happiness, we may just ask ourselves, “If I cannot muster up the joy and the happiness, is there anyone out there who might deliver me from this endless task?” Indeed, the Gospel provides such a narrative, a story to give our life coherence in such a frenetic world. And just maybe at this point, we will hear this announcement that points beyond ourselves to God’s coming, the inbreaking of something radically new that is established in Jesus Christ. In this place where something has gone amiss and is lacking enduring joy, the risen Lord proclaims that he has come to bring liberty to the captives (Luke 4:18). Someone-out-there has come; he has established himself as God in Jesus Christ. And now we too find ourselves established in him. No longer having to craft a joyous season because we have heard a new word nowhere else to be found; “a sound we hadn’t heard before”—in Taylor Swift’s words—is playing. God has come, and in just this story, so too we find ourselves. The Father offers forth a future where all creation will participate in the love he has for the Son. By just this Spirit of love, we hear and receive such a future. It is precisely this that undergirds the Christian’s joyful hope at Christmas as we await the final day of deliverance. I’ll let Robert Jenson conclude:

Because Jesus lives to triumph, there will be the real Community, with its real Banquet in its real City amid its real Splendor, as no penultimate community or banquet or city or splendor is really just and loving or tasty or civilized or golden.

To such a promise, we say with the Apostle John, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”